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Transit and ITS: Will buses pave the way for consumer vehicles to talk to each other?

By Posted on May 28, 2015

DAVE HURST_NEXTENERGYMost Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) are still in development or pilot stages, with many of the anticipated benefits hinging on the ability of cars and trucks to communicate with each other and infrastructure. One specific challenge, Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication, is similar to that of a cliché couple in a bad sitcom; they have no ability to talk to each other in a productive manner.

One type of vehicle, however, is already on the front edge of this market: the transit bus. Different components of ITS are already being implemented by many transit systems and buses, serving as a leading case study for how it can significantly impact operations. As a result, this real-world application is paving the way for other commercial vehicles to adopt aspects of ITS. Eventually, all roads will likely lead to the adoption of V2V communications by consumer vehicles.

Within transit there are two primary categories of benefits for ITS:

1. Safety benefits
These include in-vehicle safety, such as cameras and driver information systems, as well as external safety systems like “pedestrian in crosswalk” warnings, “vehicle turning right in front of bus,” and other more “typical” V2V features such as curve speed warnings and front collision warnings.

2. Operational/convenience benefits
Examples of operational and passenger convenience benefits include Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), automated passenger counting, traffic light preemption, electronic payment and ticketing and on-demand vehicle scheduling.

Some of these ITS features are not new in transit. In the year 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 61 transit agencies had operational AVL systems that incorporated, at minimum: computer aided dispatch systems, mobile data terminals, emergency alarms, and digital communications with transit buses. The American Public Transportation Association lists 1,595 public transit agencies, and by the end of 2012, APTA statistics showed that a number of features typically affiliated with ITS, were relatively common among transit buses. Of all transit buses in operation, 71% (or 48,074 buses) had AVL, while 10% had traffic light preemption. It is important to note that none of these systems require V2V communications.

Vehicle Equipment by Mode as of January 2013

Vehicle equipment by mode as of January 2013
Source: American Public Transportation Association

From an ITS market perspective, the operational/passenger convenience benefits have largely been enabled without the need for V2V communications. Dedicated short range communications (DSRC) and V2V connections are squarely focused (for the moment) on safety benefits in most transit applications. As the feature list that is attributed directly to V2V communications is narrowed, the decision to install DSRC becomes more questionable. Does safety trump the cost and infrastructure arguments against shifting to DSRC?

Detroit’s bus system (DDOT) is an example of how the reality of transit systems can both support and clash with ITS. In order to improve customer service, DDOT has instituted an AVL system with the buses that allows passengers to receive text message updates on the location of the bus, which helped alleviate some customer complaints about late or no-show buses. Also, new cameras have been installed on buses to help improve safety for the driver. Both the cameras and AVL system could be affiliated with ITS. Yet further implementation of ITS features, particularly features with significant data and infrastructure implications, will be limited by tight budgets and aging bus fleets (DDOT’s fleet is estimated to be approximately 1.5 years older than the national average of 7.3 years old).

Other transit systems in the Detroit regional area may benefit from V2V/ITS systems more quickly than DDOT, particularly those that are introducing systems that incorporate multimodal systems or interact with other transit systems that serve smaller service areas. There are a number of different shuttle systems that serve specific corporate entities (including HF New Center Shuttle Route, DMC and Quicken Loans). How these systems interact with DDOT, SMART, M1 Rail and others can be answered by ITS. Once that happens, the benefits of V2V applications are likely to grow beyond just safety, helping to pave the way to increased adoption and new applications for the communication technology in transit vehicles.